Buddhist practice contextualised – from Nuria

Posted: February 27, 2012 by J in General

This is a response to the previous post, ‘Can I still do Buddhism?’ emailed from our friend Nuria, who has extensive mission experience in Asia.

J’s questions relate to the issue of “contextualization”, an area missiology which tries to come to grips with the interplay between the Christian gospel and culture.

In thinking about whether a particular cultural belief or practice, you need to be a good exegete of BOTH the bible and the culture – you want to think about the cultural practice biblically.

One of the contextualization gurus (David Hesslegrave maybe?), says that as we think biblically about cultural practices, we will generally find that they fall into one of four categories:

  1. The practice is biblically neutral – the bible has nothing to say about it.
  2. The practice is already in line with biblical teaching so there is no need to change it.
  3. The practice is not in line with biblical teaching (eg. it is underpinned by a worldview that is at odds with the bible), but it is possibly “redeemable” (eg. maybe the practice can be imbued with new, biblically compatible meaning).
  4. The practice is clearly at odds with biblical teaching. People who want to follow Jesus need to reject this practice.

Given the above, let me have a go at outlining what this might look like for the Buddhist meditation example Jonathan has raised.

Meditation and a Buddhist worldview

The practice of meditation seems to be underpinned by the following philosophical tenets:

  • God does not exist and he did not create the world.
  • the physical world is bad
  • life in this world is marked by suffering
  • suffering happens because humans love the evil physical world too much and try to “grasp” or “hold onto” it tightly
  • when humans try to grasp onto the world, they get stuck to the world and stuck in a cycle of birth and rebirth that perpetuates the cycle of suffering
  • the goal of life is to escape the cycle of rebirth by learning to stop grasping onto this world
  • meditation is a way of learning to let go of the world in order to help a person attain the desirable state of nothingness (leading to “Nirvana” in Buddhism, which results in an end to the birth/rebirth cycle).

Analysing Buddhist meditation against a biblical worldview:

Things that the bible teaches that are incompatible with Buddhist philosophy (this not trying to be an exhaustive list):

  • God exists.
  • God created and rules the world.
  • God’s world was created good.
  • Humanity sinned by rejecting God as the ruler. One of the results of human sin is suffering. *God’s judgement on sin is death.
  • There is no cycle of reincarnation.
  • The good news is that God, in Jesus, has embraced our sinful, suffering world and suffered and died in our place for our sin, completely breaking sin’s power. God has raised Jesus to life and offers us the opportunity to enter into Jesus’ resurrection life and into an eternally restored relationship with God.
  • The goal of life is not to “let go” and escape into a state of nothingness but to embrace Jesus as Lord and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to learn to live in fellowship with God and others, looking forward to the full consummation of God’s kingdom – life in fellowship with him and each other forever in the new heaven and new earth.

Possible compatibilities between a biblical worldview and Buddhist philiosophy:

  • Ecclesiastes (ch 1-3 especially) teaches that the quest to extract “gain” (יִתרוֹן / yitron) out of life in this physical world can be a task that is intangible, hard to grasp hold of (הֶבֶל / hebel – the word the NIV translates “meaningless”). It can be an elusive task, like trying to chase after the wind.
  • This MAY be similar to the Buddhist idea that suffering results when we love the world too much and try to grasp hold of things in this world.
  • HOWEVER, contrary to Buddhism, Ecclesiastes teaches us that the world was created by God (eg. 12:1). We should embrace and enjoy life as a good gift from God, but not grasp hold of it in the quest for gain (eg. 2:24-26, 9:7-10).
  • AND Ecclesiastes says that the key to life is to fear God and keep his commands (eg. 12:13-14) cf. Buddhism which teaches that there is no God.

Where does this leave J’s questioner?

If the above analysis is correct, it seems to me that the Buddhist philosophy that underpins Buddhist meditation is fairly fundamentally opposed to biblical teaching.

However, there is something Ecclesiastes-like about what Buddhism teaches with respect to not trying to find yourself by grasping onto the things of this world.

Using the categories outlined in section 2 of the table, perhaps it is possible that the practice of meditation, in and of itself, may be “redeemable”.
Maybe the example of pagan Christmas trees, ‘redeemed’ by Christians, helps us here. For the guy J has been talking to, perhaps it is helpful to explore:

  • is his practice of Buddhist meditation constantly invoking the (unbiblical) Buddhist worldview outlined above, or is he really just using a breathing technique that helps to clear his mind or calm down?
  • are there Christian meditative practices that would be just as helpful for this person but would not invoke an unbiblical worldview? (Like Mike suggested).
  • if it’s just a breathing technique (or equivalent), is it really necessary to call this “Buddhism”? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I’m a Christian (or I’m a follower of Jesus) and I do deep breathing to calm down sometimes”? If this person can’t say that, does that mean there is more to his practice than just a meditative technique after all?
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